Hunters in the Mist
Melissa Myer didn’t give much thought to the new foxhunting fixture, nor listen to the Master’s words of caution, the need to stay with the group. Today, her mind focused instead on her new mount, a young, bright chestnut horse. He floated above the ground when he moved. His gaits felt magical and she relished the promise of being transported into another realm when on his back. The group of fellow riders barely registered on her radar.
This was her first mistake.
They, about thirty horses and riders and twenty couple of hounds, started early from the trailers, and before Melissa had time to get her bearings, what with the new horse and all, she found herself in an old, “trees with roots big enough to hide Hobbits” unfamiliar forest. There was something slightly off center about the area. A spurt of fear ran up her spine like an adrenalin injection. She attributed it to the antics of her inexperienced thoroughbred and the fact that she’d stayed up way to late reading The Lord of The Rings for the umpteenth time. Her horse, Runaway Joe, three months off the track, danced.
As the hounds and the riders trotted deeper into the woods, Runaway Joe developed a sudden talent for spinning in circles.
Out of the corner of her eye Melissa watched the horse in front of her disappear around a bend and then her attention whipped back to the thousand pounds of whirling dervish beneath her.
The horse showed no signs of tiring of his new game and though Melissa was an excellent rider, his antics made her dizzy. The sound of the huntsman’s horn faded in the distance, hardly audible over the blowing and stomping of her mount. She began to worry.
Damn, it would be nice if someone had hung around. A new horse, all alone, in unfamiliar surroundings was asking for trouble. Buck up, she told herself and reached down deep in her muscles for some hidden strength. She needed to stop Joe’s pirouettes, before she threw up.
The horse snorted, slid sideways and then at the persistent urging of her quiet hands and calm voice, came to a trembling halt.
Once she had Joe standing still, though ready to bolt at any moment, Melissa let out and sucked in a deep breath. They moved around the bend. The road forked ahead of her and the hard packed earth gave no clue as to which path the hunt had taken. Last, in the long line of horses when they left the trailers this morning, so that Joe would not be tempted to kick a hound or another horse, she’d been doing the right thing. It was absolutely taboo for a hunt horse to kick, especially kick a hound, and she knew better than to put Joe up front. That thought did little to assuage her feelings of stupidity for not listening to the Master’s warning.
She had no idea where she was or where the rest of the field of hunters had gone. Used to riding up front with those who liked to race and chase, Melissa always had the hounds, huntsman, or at least the sound of the horn in her reach to show her the way, but not today. In front, the sound of pounding hooves and snorting of over-excited horses closing in tried the patience of even the most seasoned hunt horse. Joe had a hard enough time handling the slower paced group of non-jumpers, know as hilltoppers, and would probably have dumped her if she had pressed him to handle the first flight, those that jumped and moved at a sometimes eye-tearing pace.
Running a finger under the chin strap of her velvet-covered helmet, Melissa shook her head. Nothing to do now but pick a trail and hope it was the right one. She’d catch up soon enough. Joe moved forward with a gentle nudge of her calves against his heaving sides.
No runaway now, he took a hesitant step, flicked one pricked ear in her direction as if asking if this was what she wanted. She clucked softly and urged him to move on.
Soon, he picked up his normal long-strided walk, stretched out his neck and lowered his head. A deep rib-widening sigh lifted Melissa in the saddle and she grinned, felt the black woven straps of her helmet bridge the dimples in her cheeks. She echoed the sigh. It signaled to her Joe had decided that this wasn’t so bad after all and she wanted to assure him she agreed. At this pace it would be doubtful they would catch up to the hunt field, but the forest, quiet and enclosing like a deep green comforter, made for a pleasant trail ride.
The belief that most horses, if given their head, will find their way back to the barn or trailer, is well known among riders. Melissa decided to give it a try. Her Timex sports-watch told her she had at least twelve hours before darkness. That should be plenty of time for Runaway Joe to find their way out of here. She looped the reins, or as she told her students, let a horse have a little room between your hands and his mouth.
“Okay, Joe, you pick which way to go.” The horse took the left fork.
They crested a hill and a mountain, vague as a long ago dream, appeared in the far distance. Melissa spied movement in the distance. Hounds in shades of black, tan and white weaving a tapestry through a green canvas of old forest, and a stream of horses, steam rising from their backs, shrouding their riders in capes of gray. She squinted and then rode toward them.
This was her second mistake.